When I read my first bodybuilding magazine in late 1987, I was instantaneously transformed from just another kid who lifted weights to an aspiring bodybuilder. The stars featured in that issue—Rich Gaspari, Lee Haney, Lee Labrada, Gary Strydom, Mike Christian, Berry DeMey, and Shawn Ray—seemed to me like living, breathing gods. I knew that no matter how long it took or how hard I had to work, I was going to look like them.
At the beginning, I had no clue about what the bodybuilding lifestyle truly entailed. I knew nothing about the training, nutrition, and supplements, and in some cases, drugs; the mindset, commitment, discipline, and sacrifice it would require to develop and maintain a bodybuilder's physique.
Now, 30 years later, I can say I made many mistakes and learned most lessons the hard way, but I have few regrets. Even so, part of the me of today wishes I could go back and talk to the 1987 me about what would become the most defining part of my life.
If I had that opportunity, these are the crucial things I would have explained to my younger self before he picked up his first weight.
1. Building Muscle Takes Time—a Long Time
If there was one facet of bodybuilding I was laughably oblivious about, it was the sheer amount of time it takes to gain lean muscle tissue. I distinctly remember being 18 years old and staring in awe at photos of my hero, Rich Gaspari, and being utterly certain that I would look exactly like him—by age 19.
As the months went by, I didn't progress nearly as quickly as I expected. Gaining even a pound of muscle took weeks—and this for a relative beginner at the pinnacle of his growing years. I had woefully underestimated how slow the process really is for most of us who are genetically average.
Throughout this period, I tried to stay optimistic about my bright future as a muscle man, but all I felt was frustration and disappointment. I see now that my only frame of reference then was the photos in a magazine. It never occurred to me that it had taken them years to get where they were—and that they were extraordinarily gifted bodybuilders.
2. Elite Performance Is in the Genes
This idea of some people being more "gifted" than others remains to this day one of the biggest little secrets of bodybuilding. Way back in the 1970s, contrarian voices like Arthur Jones and Mike Mentzer were the first to say out loud that only a select, fortunate few were born with the elite genetics to become champion bodybuilders.
Here we are 40-plus years later, and most people still don't accept the fact that unless you were born with the right bone structure, muscle attachments, and fiber types; unless you were blessed with a metabolism designed to build extreme amounts of muscle while remaining lean, it doesn't matter how hard you train or what pharmacological risks you take. Only those gifted few make it to the top.
But maybe your goals don't include winning contests or turning pro. If so, that's absolutely fine—and not enough people say that. I would tell my younger self to look to the pros for inspiration, but don't expect to reach their level of development.
3. Building Muscle Takes Food—a Lot of It
When I first started bodybuilding, I had only heard that "bodybuilders need to eat a lot." I had no idea what anyone meant by "a lot." I assumed that if I kept eating my usual three square meals a day I'd be fine. Wrong!
Most people have no idea that to give the body all the nutrients it requires to fuel intense workouts, but also to spur growth, eating must be your job. For me, that meant meals every 2-3 hours from the time I woke up until the time I went to sleep—every day! It changed from something I did when hungry to something I did pretty much all the time.
You'll find plenty of people knocking the bodybuilder style of eating, but for me, 5-6 meals a day is still the gold standard when building muscle is the goal—and even then, maybe a shake on top of it all. This commitment, more than any particular style of lifting, truly separates bodybuilders from the many millions of others who train hard every day.
4. There Are no Unbroken, Upward Ascents
It can be easy to come to the conclusion that you're among the chosen few when you first start training. At first, the stimulus you get from lifting and eating big is such a shock to your muscles that they react fairly predictably by quickly becoming bigger and stronger.
But within a matter of months, this honeymoon ends, and your gains become infuriatingly slow. What I didn't know then was that there would be long periods when, even though I was doing everything right, I would fail to see any improvements. My lifts would stall for months. The mirror wouldn't change for months. I definitely didn't see that coming.
Periodically, I'd see gains, then hit another plateau, and so on. But I didn't know that there would be so many plateaus! In hindsight, it's amazing I stayed with it in the face of all of them. But I didn't quit. I kept moving in the right direction—just not as fast as I'd hoped.
5. Bodybuilding Can Break You Financially
Compared to, say, golfing or sailing, bodybuilding isn't the most expensive hobby out there. But it isn't cheap, either! Between all the food and supplements, gym equipment and memberships, and paid guidance from trainers or coaches (for those willing to do it), bodybuilding can take a big bite out of your budget.
That bite gets a lot bigger if you decide to compete. On top of your normal expenses, you now add the cost of contest-entry fees, prep-coach fees, spray tanning, and, if you're not sponsored, airfare and hotel costs too.
Sure, you can be a bodybuilder who trains at home on basic equipment, living on canned tuna, eggs, rice, and potatoes. But most pros don't roll like that. So set your expectations accordingly.
6. Bodybuilding Can Break You Literally
Oh, how I wish I could sit down with the younger me and warn him about the injuries, aches, and pains he will endure because of his insistence on training ridiculously heavy. If only he could understand the risks he would take hoisting bone-crushing weights while proper lifting form was nowhere to be found.
But even with perfect form, thousands of sets of heavy squats, heavy deadlifts, bench presses, and military presses take their cumulative toll over the decades. Had I fully realized the damage I was inflicting on myself, I would have trained much smarter, and probably much lighter.
If I could, I would tell my younger counterpart to warm up and stretch more, and to use weights I could handle with good form for more than a couple of reps. But for too many bodybuilders, that insight comes too late.
7. Don't Expect It to Make Sense to Anyone but You
For some unknown reason, I started out with this delusional idea that the whole world respected bodybuilders for their dedication and discipline, for the stunningly well-formed, muscular physiques they had carefully crafted.
Many people do think highly of bodybuilders for these very reasons. But many more consider what we do vain, narcissistic, and pointless; many think we look either ridiculous or disgusting. Rather than praise us, they mock or insult us.
And because steroids are in the news so much, many people assume that bodybuilders are juiced to the gills—that whatever we have achieved, it was because we just did some shots and took some pills to get there.
If you're looking for validation for all the long hours and sweat you put into developing your physique, look only to yourself and your brothers and sisters in iron—to those who truly know what it takes to do what you've done.
8. Live and Lift, Don't Live to Lift
If I could give the younger me one more head's up, it would be to make sure that bodybuilding doesn't take over his entire life. I know of too many people who have lost their marriages, their jobs, and even their homes to bodybuilding.
People have lost their health by taking outrageous risks and ingesting a laundry list of questionable substances. They've injected site-enhancement oils in their arms and calves for the sake of an extra bump in a photograph. They've died too young of heart attacks, liver failure, and kidney failure because they did too much, for too long, with no regard for their own well-being.
In their distorted perspective, bodybuilding and the pursuit of ever-larger muscles was all that really mattered in life.
There is so much I wish I had known before I started bodybuilding. I wish I could go back and tell the 1987 me to slow down and enjoy the process of developing a great physique. I would tell him to treat his body with respect, nudging his limits forward rather than crashing into them.
If you're just starting out, I urge you to treasure your decision to devote time to bodybuilding—but to do it with the right perspective. Make bodybuilding an important, health-promoting part of an otherwise well-rounded life.